French intellectual tells of insider role in Libya war

2011-11-09 11:18

Paris – French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy helped to persuade President Nicolas Sarkozy to arm Libya’s revolution, and says Muammar Gaddafi’s downfall should serve as a warning to dictators everywhere.

That Levy played a role in Gaddafi’s overthrow has been known since the first days of the conflict in March, but the extent of his involvement was revealed this week in his new book on the war and in an interview with AFP.

He describes how – fearing the West would stand aside as a despot murdered his own people – he met rebel leaders in Benghazi and, on the basis of a brief meeting, decided to introduce them to Sarkozy.

“For an intellectual who is horrified by violence, who knows war well enough to be awfully afraid, it’s not easy take part – to what extent, I don’t know – in the decision to launch or prolong a war,” he told AFP.

With his trademark handmade white shirts open to the chest, constant media appearances and celebrity lifestyle, Levy – or “BHL” as he is known in Paris – is sometimes mocked as a showman rather than a serious thinker.

But the 63-year-old has a long association with humanitarian and political causes, and says he did not take his role in the Libyan conflict lightly.

He admitted that in March he had little idea who the men behind the rebel National Transitional Council were, having only talked briefly with its leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil, but he nevertheless decided France must support them.

“I don’t really know who Abdel Jalil is, but I know what a massacre is. I haver seen many in by life,” said Levy, an intellectual activist who lobbied for persecuted populations in Bangladesh, Bosnia, Rwanda and elsewhere.

“I know what it is for a city to be punished by a dictator. I know what it is for a city to be ripped apart, to be terrorised by Sukhoi jets and militia fighters,” he explained at his Left Bank publishers’ office.

“And so, in effect, it was instinctive. I told myself it was impossible to stand by, that everything must be done to prevent this coming disaster, this planned disaster,” he explained, recounting his trips behind rebel lines.

Revolutionary forces

On March 5, Levy met leaders of the fledgling National Transitional Council in the hours after they formed the body to unite revolutionary forces against the regime.

Gaddafi’s forces were closing in on Benghazi, rolling back a brave but indisciplined rebel force, and the strongman made blood-curdling threats to hunt down the “traitors” and take his revenge. Levy grabbed a satellite telephone and called Sarkozy.

“My plan is to bring a delegation from the council that was just formed to Paris ... Would you agree to meet, personally, with this delegation?” he asked Sarkozy. “Of course,” the president replied, according to Levy’s book.

Five days later Levy brought a delegation to the Elysee. To general astonishment, France immediately recognised the rebel regime.

French and British diplomats worked swiftly to secure a UN resolution authorising force to protect Libyan civilians. On March 19 a salvo of US cruise missiles marked the start of a Western bombing campaign.

But Levy’s role was not over. He made more trips to Libya, visiting rebels in the Djebel Nafusa highlands and the besieged port of Misrata, and arranging more high-wire shuttle diplomacy.

He introduced CNT military leader Abdel Fatah Younes to Sarkozy in midnight talks in Paris on April 13. France sent military trainers and large quantities of weapons to the front, turning the course of the war.

The philosopher’s role was shifting. He had become a player in the drama, helping the rebels draft public statements and attending talks between Younes and Sarkozy in which strategy and weapons drops were discussed in detail.

‘I did the right thing’

“Obviously when I heard him list the weapons he needed, when I heard him raise the possibility of opening a second front in the Djebel Nafusa, it was terrifying for me. I knew all of that must be handled with care,” he said.

“Of course I never stopped having doubts,” he said. “I’ve thought about it a lot and I think, at each stage, I did the right thing.”

So would France have gone to war without Levy?

“I don’t know. In this book I bear witness to what I saw and what I did. I took these members of the National Transitional Council to Paris and suggested they be recognised, which France did to the astonishment of the world,” he said.

“I write – and this is not easy, because I’m not one of his supporters – that if President Sarkozy was not ready, if France was not ready, Gaddafi would still be in power and Benghazi reduced to cinders like Misrata.”

Levy described France’s intervention as a victory for humanitarian internationalism and the rule of law.

Despite Gaddafi’s bloody end, tormented and lynched by the very rebels that Levy invited to the Elysee Palace – an incident which the thinker regrets – he believes it should serve as a model for future operations.

“It’s a first for those of my generation,” he said. “I think that it can serves as an example, that it can only make other dictators stop and think, at least those in the region.”

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